I happened upon Mr. Hamburger while driving north on I-45, heading to the burger contest in Athens. I was probably daydreaming about the perfect hamburger when I missed the exit for State Highway 19. Looking for a shortcut, I took a Huntsville exit and got lost. When I spotted a dilapidated hamburger drive-in on 11th Street with a weird scary clown sign, I pulled over immediately.
A conversation with the employees behind the service window revealed that Mr. Hamburger has been serving burgers to Sam Houston State students for more than 50 years. I wondered if all the signs recommending the "killer burger" were meant as a come-on to Huntsville visitors protesting the death penalty. Conscious or not, the irony was too rich to ignore. I ordered mine with fries and a soda.
Eating a hamburger on the way to judge a hamburger cook-off may sound idiotic. But one of the biggest problems with judging cook-offs is how to score the first entry when you have no basis for comparison. Do you give it a five on a scale of one to ten and mark everything else up or down from there? What if the first one turns out to be the best?
Eating a hamburger on the way to the cook-off was a brilliant way around the dilemma. Or at least this was the elaborate rationalization I was using to cover up my hamburger-eating disorder.
However sane my choice of lunch was that day, I have no regrets. From the full pound of fresh ground meat and the juicy condiments, to the ramshackle joint that turns it out, Mr. Hamburger's killer burger is a true Texas classic. I was indeed slain by it -- or at least it made me feel like taking a nap.
The burger that won the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off featured three pounds of ground beef formed into two stuffed patties that sat on a one-foot-diameter custom-baked seeded bun. It had impressive heft, like the behemoths you find at Arnold's and Mr. Hamburger. It also had the glorious pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mayo and mustard trimmings Texans consider indispensable. Yet the clever stuffing of pepper Jack cheese inside the burger patties is part of the modern trend.
Gary Beams headed up the winning team, which came from Trinity Valley Community College in Athens. Beams, who is the TVCC cafeteria manager, is also a trained chef who's worked in the kitchens of such fine restaurants as the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.
He ground three pounds of sirloin and chuck and seasoned it with a combination of spices that remains his secret. He then divided the meat into four three-quarter-pound patties, put pepper Jack cheese on two of them, and formed two humongous pound-and-a-half stuffed burger patties by pinching the layers together. The two giant patties were then grilled and removed from the fire when they reached an internal temperature of 146 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The hamburger keeps cooking after you take it off," Beams explained. He hoped the burger would be cooked to 150 degrees by the time it made it to the judging. At that temperature, no pink color remains, but the meat's still juicy. It's also ten degrees lower than the USDA guidelines allow (see sidebar, page 27).
Stuffing a hamburger patty with cheese is one way to make it taste moist even when the meat is fairly well done, Beams confided. Second-place winner Derek Holdredge of Athens mixed ground pork and ground beef to keep the meat juicy (a technique familiar to fans of Tookie's "squealer"). He put his half-pound patties on grocery-store kaiser rolls with the standard pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. Third-place winner Jan Canterbury, a second-grade teacher in Cut and Shoot, stuffed two-and-a-half-pound patties with Monterrey Jack and grated jalapeños, much like the first-place winner.
Gary Beams doesn't think a cheese-stuffed burger will ever make it in Texas restaurants because it complicates the cooking-temperature equation even further. "It's a health department nightmare," he said.
But Beams believes that the American hamburger has recently turned a corner. According to the burger champion, the once noble American burger has been in a slump that goes all the way back to the infancy of the fast food industry.
"Clown burgers" is what Beams calls McDonald's version, and he blames the company for trying to squeeze more profits out of each sandwich by making the patties smaller and smaller. "Our winning burger weighed three pounds. Clown burgers are now a tenth of a pound per patty!"